Wetlands and Wellbeing: Queer Perspectives on Blue Health

I’ve recently been in contact with Helena Russo, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at British Canoeing. Helena got in touch after a colleague heard about Queer River through my piece in Nick Hayes’ most recent book The Trespassers Companion.

Helena’s colleagues at British Canoeing are themselves involved in work around river access (see this recent piece Canoeists Make Waves About Right to Paddle in English Rivers in The Guardian), and river custodianship (see here on work addressing invasive non-native species).

James in the River Avon at Salisbury (photo: Leigh Chalmers)

Talking to Helena, and gathering together research on wellbeing and wetlands ahead of my work on The Ripple Effect project, led me to thinking that a new Queer River blog post might be helpful, which looked more specifically at the links between the following themes:

1. The importance of enabling and sharing a diverse range of experiences of/perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, whilst considering the barriers that exist to such equality of access

2. The impact that access to rivers has/would have, on the wellbeing of the individuals concerned and that of the rivers themselves, should such access be enabled.

The themes of this post, will hopefully help people reading the blog to better understand how the different elements of Queer River relate, as well as helping me to focus my thinking as the project moves forward.

Drawing with Alder Cone ink. Cones gathered from a tree by the River Avon

Yes, there are multiple threads running through my Queer River research (I’m also currently researching the impact of the changing climate on UK wetlands birds for example), but they can all be traced back to this central focus; the importance of coming to know and care about rivers, if we are to restore them to health, and receive the benefits of a healthy ecosystem in return. People of all identities and backgrounds need to (and have a right to) be brought into relationship with rivers, through methods which engage our bodies and our creativity.

The ways that we come to know a river depend on our relationship with the world, which in turn is informed by our identity (sexuality, gender, disability, ethnicity), our previous experiences (whether welcoming and enjoyable, threatening or excluding), the roles we play in everyday life (archaeologist, ecologist, artist), and also the means by which we access the river (through walking, by bike or by canoe).

Our son swimming in the River Usk at Crickhowell

Individual wellbeing and ecological wellbeing are inextricably linked. Through coming to know a river, and being moved by that experience, our awareness of the importance of rivers and their health is increased, with positive knock on effects for our behaviour towards them. If we are unable to access rivers and other wetlands, because of physical or cultural/attitudinal barriers, then we are unable to experience the benefits to our wellbeing, and unable to gain the knowledge that enables us to care for them in return.

I’ve never paddled a canoe, although that’s something I’m hoping to change soon, in order to gain the perspective that paddling along my local waterways might bring. I had made some assumptions that canoe clubs might not be a comfortable space for me to enter as a queer man, that it would all be a bit macho and competitive, and that’s not uncommon for queer people in a sports context.

One in ten LGBT people (10 per cent) who attended a live sporting event in the UK in the last year experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and 66 per cent of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people felt that there were problems with homophobia and transphobia in sport and that this acted as a barrier to LGBT people taking part’

Stonewall – LGBTQ+ Facts and Figures

Riverside walk interrupted – River Avon near Pewsey, Wiltshire

I’ve also had to change my initial plans to walk the length of my local river, the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon, when I found that very little of it is accessible to the public, because of private ownership and management for fishing.

‘In England and Wales less than 4% of the 41,000 miles (68,000km) of rivers have public access. That figure drops to 2% if smaller watercourses less than 3m (10ft) wide are taken into account.’

The Fight for England’s Rivers – www.bbc.co.uk

When researching Blue Health, I came across some inspiring work that The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have been carrying out at Steart Marshes on the Severn Estuary over the last few years. Work at Steart has combined habitat creation, flood mitigation and blue prescribing, with related blue prescribing projects taking place at Slimbridge and The London Wetland Centre. Blue Health is a key interest of mine, which I touched on in the Walking with… Artist and Researcher Catherne Lamont-Robinson post, and hope to return to explore in more depth with Catherine and others in the future.

‘We conducted pilots with individuals diagnosed with anxiety or depression at the WWT Slimbridge centre. Participants took part in a two-hour session per week for six consecutive weeks, in which they went bird-watching, tried bird feeding, had a canoe safari, estuary walk and picnicParticipants said that the wetland site provided a sense of escape from everyday environments, helping them relax and feel less stressed. As a result our findings showed significant improvements in mental health across a range of indicators, including mental wellbeing, anxiety, stress and emotional wellbeing.’

WWT website – Blue Prescribing Project

Sewage Pumping Station by the River Avon at Patney, Wiltshire

This recognition of the reciprocity of human/ecological wellbeing displayed in the work carried out at Steart Marshes, is something that I keep returning to in my own work, and which will be at the heart of The Ripple Effect with Wessex Archaeology and The Environment Agency.

“This year sees the start of the Environment Agency’s approved scheme, The River Park project… which will reduce flood risk within Salisbury whilst creating wildlife corridors and improving biodiversity by connecting green spaces. Wessex Archaeology have worked closely with the Environment Agency team and local artist James Aldridge to create The Ripple Effect… This project is designed to improve people’s wellbeing through positive engagement with the local environment, the community and each other. There will be engagement with people across all generations through walks, workshops, creative moments, and shared experiences.”

Leigh Chalmers – Wessex Archaeology Heritage Inclusion Development Specialist

Untitled – drawing on paper

The value of queer perspectives is something I’ve explored a lot in previous writing/presentations, including A Queer Path to Wellbeing – a piece that I wrote for Climate Cultures – and this video recording of a discussion on the Queer River themes, Talking with… Mark Leahy and Art dot Earth. I’ve also written before about climate justice, and the unequal impact that climate breakdown is having/will have on LGBTQi+ people (as well as disabled people and people of colour).

Mental ill health also disproportionately affects members of the LGBTQi+ community. Statistically, LGBTQi+ people experience a higher levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Taking a look at Stonewall’s LGBTQ+ Facts and Figures , and the prejudice that queer people continue to experience in everyday life reminds us why:

42% of LGBT+ school pupils in the UK have been bullied in the past year, double the number of non-LGBT+ pupils (21%) (and) Two-thirds (64%) of LGBTQ+ people in the UK have experienced anti-LGBT+ violence or abuse...’

Rubbish caught in a grille o the River Frome

My methodology in the Queer River project, the walking, talking and making with others, itself has a therapeutic benefit, certainly for me and hopefully for those I walk with too. It’s one of the key reasons I started the project. I’m a kind of guinea pig. My own experiences help me to learn about the role of art in blue health, and to trial ways of working that can then be translated into participatory contexts – in education and the community.

I hope that this post is enough to set my Queer River research in a more specific context, and by doing so, that my learning can be shared more widely. The context is an intersecting one, of access, wellbeing (individual and ecological) and wetlands. One within which organisations such as British Canoeing, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Wessex Archaeology, are active, and working to develop models of good practice.

Langford Lakes Reserve – Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

‘We can all learn about ourselves – what we like, who we are, how we relate to the bigger picture of life – by immersing ourselves in natural systems. This allows us all to blur the boundaries between ourselves and the rest of nature, to experience ourselves as part of… everything that is. It’s healthy for us as individuals, and it’s what the wider world needs from us too.’

James Aldridge in The Trespasser’s Companion by Nick Hayes

If you would like to share your own examples of organisations and communities engaging with rivers to enhance river and participant wellbeing, particularly (but not only) if you’re exploring the experiences of LGBTQi+ people or the role of art, please do get in touch.

This June, British Canoeing’s cleaner rivers initiative, The Big Paddle Clean Up, encourages river users to get involved in cleaning up their local river:

We want everyone to have access to blue spaces and enjoy the many benefits of being out on the water. But our waterways are in crisis from plastic pollution. As paddlers, we can make a real difference to our blue spaces as we can access those hard to reach places and remove plastic from our waterways.’

Running from 4th to 12th June, you can find out more about how to get involved here on the British Canoeing website.

On a related subject, I was recently commissioned by Wessex Archaeology to contribute to their new Heritage Feel Good pack, launched during Mental Health Awareness Week:

the Wessex Archaeology Heritage Feel Good Pack sees us using heritage, archaeology and place as the ingredients for the activities within the pack.

My Following the Water activity pages are designed to support people to map the movement of water through their homes and beyond.

You can download the Heritage Feel Good Pack here.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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